He is perhaps better known as "the fox who guards the chicken coop" than as the guardian of America's vast natural resources, from the towering mountain peaks of the national parks to the inestimable mineral wealth beneath the ocean bed.

In the 23-month tenure of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, more than a million Americans have signed petitions seeking his ouster, environmentalists have accused him of hocking America's natural crown jewels for a quick buck and Congress has voted to tie his hands on several key initiatives.

This week, bowing to political opposition, he abandoned one of his more passionate crusades, promising to no longer try to open the American wilderness to the drilling rigs of oil and gas companies.

But while it is popular wisdom that Watt and his pro-development agenda have been stopped by a grass-roots uprising, the real story is quite different, and Watt presented it this week in a glossy annual report entitled: "1982: A Year of Progress."

The handsome booklet was illustrated with stirring pictures of the bald eagle and the wild domain of nature, of strip mines and drilling rigs--all part of Interior's far-flung realm.

But the bottom line was told in the pale graphs and tables: under Watt, transfers of public resources to private hands are literally rising off the charts. And it has been made much easier for industry to develop millions of acres of federal land.

Since his arrival at Interior, Watt has auctioned off eight times as much federally owned coal to mining companies as was sold in the last two years of the Carter administration. Three times as much of the oil and gas resources under public lands has been leased, and geothermal energy leasing has doubled.

At the same time, Interior has freed 100 times as much western land for mining as was opened during the Carter administration. The report says that Watt has revoked "obsolete" federal restrictions on 107.4 million acres of public land, compared with 1.18 million in Carter's four years.

"We have brought dramatic change," Watt said as he displayed the steeply inclining charts this week in his ceremonial meeting room. "We have done it with intensity and we have done it with a purpose. We came with an agenda and we're fulfilling that agenda . . . . This is a success story never equaled by a change of administrations before."

This was vintage Watt, as friends and foes have come to know him, but even Watt's environmentalist critics acknowledge grudgingly that they have failed to stop some of his most far-reaching initiatives.

That is because federal law gives the interior secretary broad discretion over how he manages the public domain. Congress can condemn him and environmentalists can sue him, but there are vast areas of his 300-million-acre realm in which no one can stop him.

"We were always told to leave lots of room in those laws because they had to apply to all public lands for all time," said an attorney for the House Interior Committee who helped write several of the laws that govern natural resources.

"And anyway, we figured there would always be a conservationist in office, and he'd use his discretion to protect the land. Now suddenly we've got a guy who wants to develop it, and he's got us over a barrel."

Using this discretion, Watt has put in place a program to open 1 billion acres of offshore waters--virtually the entire American coastline--to potential oil and gas development in the next five years. It also enables him to sell millions of acres of public lands in the West over the next four years, despite the opposition of ranchers and western politicians as well as environmentalists.

By contrast, Watt's recent promise to ban oil and gas leasing on 33 million acres of wilderness in the lower 48 states affects a relatively small area.

Watt also has used his discretion to reshape federal policies on expansion of national parks, the protection of endangered species, water rights, Indian reservations and strip mining.

It was this discretion that allowed him, with the stroke of a pen on a Federal Register notice, to drop more than 600,000 acres of western wild lands from consideration for addition to the federal wilderness system last week.

Watt said the lands had to be dropped because of a technicality in the law, but attorneys for environmental groups pointed out that another section of the same law would allow Watt to leave the wilderness protections in place.

The uproar over that announcement was another installment in what has become a running Washington drama: Watt versus his environmentalist critics. First Watt announces a policy loosening federal restrictions on land use, saying it follows the letter of the law; then environmentalists put out a news release denouncing it as a subversion of the intent of the same law.

The curtain went up on the next act of the drama when Watt released "A Year of Progress."

Less than an hour after Watt's briefing, the Wilderness Society, one of the nation's most influential environmental groups, convened a news conference before a dozen television cameras and a crowd of reporters.

The society's chairman, former senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, denounced Watt's report as "a 31-page document of puffery and minutiae" and his tenure as "nothing short of a disaster."

Watt made his presentation in front of a color photograph of a fox poised to pounce, his mocking answer to those who call him the fox in the chicken coop. There was no joking, however, at the environmentalists' news conference, where Nelson sat in front of a painting of Watt, which shows him ripping up a national park and replacing it with a strip mine and belching smokestacks.

While Watt boasted that his accelerated sales of coal, oil and gas have reaped unprecedented cash for the Treasury, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation issued news releases likening the program to a "fire sale" of the public's resources--a flooding of the energy market in a time of glut that creates a bonanza for industry and a long-run financial loss for the government.

But between the lines of their denunciations, the environmentalists also acknowledged that for all the public opposition to Watt they have generated, he remains in many ways beyond their control.

"We think Secretary Watt is going to launch an all-out attack on public lands in 1983," said the Wilderness Society's William A. Turnage, who sat beside Nelson at the news conference. "They muzzled him before the election in 1982. They'll have to worry about the election in 1984. So 1983 is the last year he has to do his evil work."

Watt, of course, saw it differently. As he displayed one chart after another, extolling the virtues of the free market with the solemnity of a preacher, he accused past administrations of hoarding the federal estate, burdening free enterprise and hindering the quest for energy independence.

Asked what he thinks of his many critics, Watt responded, "We will not be stampeded. We will not govern this department by intimidation."

Asked if he had made any mistakes, Watt grinned, but dodged the question: "I've made a lot of mistakes, but I want to focus on the successes of this year."

There were times during that year when Watt appeared headed for early retirement, as Democrats called for his firing and White House aides monitored the political fallout from the many controversies he triggered.

Now, he said, he has a green light from President Reagan to move on with his agenda.

And he will keep doing it, he said, "until my usefulness expires."